June 27, 2016

New Atheists and Atheist Tribalism

Old SchoolIn my Internet travels, I've come across a surprising number of people lately who openly identify themselves as atheists, frequently criticize religion (and oftentimes religious believers), and who go out of their way to disparage those they refer to as "New Atheists." So far, they have all had something in common in that they never bother to define what they mean by "New Atheists" or clearly identify who they are talking about when they use the term. Since they do not indicate what "New Atheist" means to them, I am never sure whether I might be one by their definition or not. And since I don't know what they mean by it, it is not clear whether I should be flattered or insulted if I were to learn that they thought the term applied to me.

I have never considered myself a "New Atheist." I was an atheist for over a decade before Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others wrote the books that led the mainstream news media in the U.S. to begin paying attention to atheism and subsequently coin the "New Atheist" term. I trace my atheism to Bertrand Russell, thank you very much!

Back in February of 2014, I wrote that I didn't find much new about "new atheism," at least not with regard to what the term originally seemed to mean. But I agreed with Austin Cline's suggestion that the term quickly evolved to become a new way for people to denigrate atheists who dared to express their feelings about religion. It was something one would hear from religious believers who were unhappy that some atheists were becoming somewhat more vocal. In essence, a "New Atheist" was an atheist who did not know his or her place. Now I am starting to think that the term has evolved again, becoming a new way for atheists to insult one another.

My best guess is that the term is now reflects a sort of tribalism among atheists. Calling someone a "New Atheist," at least in the way I have seen it used, appears to be a way of saying, "You are the wrong kind of atheist." As a fan of what I've sometimes called "big tent atheism" (or just diversity), I find this unfortunate. Atheism has no dogma that would bind people together merely because they are atheists. And so, atheists are bound to have different life experiences, values, priorities, and so on. Aside from believing in gods, I don't see any way that someone can "do atheism" incorrectly. Personally, I think that is a good thing.

In any case, if being a "New Atheist" means that one is willing to express one's views on the subject of religion, that one agrees with people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins on at least a few things, or that one has grown tired of ignoring religious privilege, then I'll take being called one as a compliment even if the person using the label continues to be unwilling to define it. If calling me a "New Atheist" makes you feel better about yourself and/or is an effective way of signaling virtue to your particular atheist tribe, then have at it.
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